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Sri Lanka's path to peace




Shastri Ramachandaran

Senior Assistant Editor of The Times of India, New Delhi

TFF associate


December 13, 2002

First we had talking Tigers, and now these Tigers are changing stripes.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), denizens of the jungles in northern Sri Lanka, who in the past started speaking of peace with a promising roar only to end in a frustrating whimper, have just finished supping at the same table with their arch foes - representatives of the government in Colombo. And after three days of a sumptuous peace-meal, along with a belch of satisfaction, they have delivered themselves of the declaration that they will no longer demand a separate and independent nation for Tamils in the island republic.

The Sri Lankan Tamils - different from the plantation Tamils who are descendents of indentured labour exported to work in the tea estates during British rule - constitute about 12.6 per cent of the population and are the main minority. Their separatist war been one of the bloodiest, raging for 19 years and taking a toll of 65,000 lives.

The landmark talks between government negotiators and Tamil Tigers, brokered by Norway and hosted by Thailand in Sattahip Naval Base is the first direct engagement in seven years. During the three days of negotiations from September 16, both G L Peiris who leads the government delegation, and Anton Balasingam, London-based chief negotiator of the Tamil Tigers, struck an upbeat note with declarations of turning their backs on war.

Even as the negotiators sat down for talks, Sri Lanka was swept by waves of optimism: people thronged Hindu and Buddhist temples, churches and mosques to pray for the success of the effort; and investors drove the Colombo share market to its highest level in five years. Such sentiments were attributed to the feeling that this peace initiative is different from earlier ones and more likely to succeed. Previous attempts at negotiations had failed to make any headway, and for a number of reasons, including the fact that proposals for talks were ploys, by both sides, to regroup forces for renewed military offensives.

However, the current negotiations held out the promise of both parties sticking to the path towards peace much before the dramatic declaration of the Tigers dropping their demand for a separate Tamil state. Although this development is the strongest signal so far of the LTTE's commitment to the peace process, even before this denouement came on the last day, there was other evidence of both sides being determined to pursue negotiations. First and foremost is the fact that the 'international community', often a euphemism for Washington, had been leaning on all parties to the dispute to move towards talks. New Delhi may not have been visible but its pressure was no less a factor in leading to this development. These talks, unlike earlier attempts, took place at the end of seven months of a bilateral ceasefire. The ceasefire, unilaterally declared by the LTTE, was reciprocated by the Sri Lankan government and later formalised by an agreement. This extended truce has been the longest spell of peace during the 19 years of armed conflict.

Earlier, the Tigers had been persuaded to seal an agreement with the Muslims, another minority in Sri Lanka (about seven per cent of the population) but one which had been a victim of the LTTE's 'ethnic cleansing'. The Muslims, who are in government and were targeted by the Tigers, have the potential to disrupt the peace talks as well as unsettle the coalition government in Colombo.

Political quarrels between president Chandrika Kumaratunga and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who belong to rival political parties threatened, more than once, to disrupt the the peace process. Here too Washington had to step in, particularly to restrain Kumaratunga from extending her battle for supremacy against Wickremesinghe to his peace initiative, which had been endorsed by international powers. The foreign powers also kept up the pressure on the rebels as well as Colombo at every stage through the Norwegian facilitators.

With so much being done before the start of talks, it was certainly expected to pave the way for continued negotiations. What was most unexpected was the LTTE declaration that they would give up their armed struggle for an independent nation and settle for a "homeland" within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. Whether this homeland's status will be negotiated as part of a confederal or federal arrangement; what powers will vest in Colombo and what in the hands of the LTTE administration; who, Central or provincial authority, will exercise power over land and police - are all open questions to which answers may not be forthcoming till the last act of the peace play that has just begun.

What is known is that the Tigers and government negotiators, will now travel the path to peace; that they will no longer wage their armed struggle, though arms will be laid down only when full peace is achieved; that self-determination and homeland can be accommodated with the broadest conceivable autonomy without compromising Sri Lanka's territorial integrity; and that subjects other than the "core issue" - the status of the homeland - will take precedence and be dealt with in successive rounds.

The immediate task confronting the two sides is to motivate the international community to come forward with the assistance required for relief and rehabilitation in the war-affected areas, followed by reconstruction. With the LTTE no longer banned as a terrorist outfit in Sri Lanka, its separatist demand having been given up, the economic embargo on LTTE-controlled areas being eased and a truce that has held for seven months, creating conditions for resumption of normal life will now be accorded the highest priority.

Here, the international community has to rise and show greater resolve, by matching their rhetoric for peace with resources that will put an end to conditions that create conflict.


© TFF & the author 2002  


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